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The Ox-Bow Incident: Fox Studio Classics

Now considered one of the most somber and profound of all classic westerns, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) arrived at the wrong time. Impressed by the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, director William Wellman shopped the project around nearly every studio in Hollywood, but he failed to win backing — the country was in the midst of a war, and the studio chiefs knew that glossy musicals and simple heroic adventures were the day's surest financial bets, not a dark story about a town mob hell-bent on a lynching. It's a testament to Wellman that he finally took his project to Daryl F. Zanuck at Fox — thanks to a fistfight on a hunting trip, the two had not been on speaking terms for a few years. Zanuck greenlit the picture, provided that Wellman would work on a tight budget and direct two more scripts for him, sight-unseen. The gamble paid off critically, as the resultant film earned critical accolades and an Academy nomination for Best Picture. But audiences avoided the movie outright, and it would take several decades before it earned the recognition it deserved, eventually winning a place in the National Film Registry in 1998. Henry Fonda stars as Gil Carter, a run-down cowboy who wanders into a sleepy Nevada town with his partner Art (Harry Morgan), and straight into the middle of a crisis. Word is running through town that a local rancher has been murdered and his cattle taken, prompting some citizens to form a posse. However, to some it's plain that the posse is nothing more than a brutish lynch mob. Gil is sent to fetch the local judge, who also warns the mob that they are potentially breaking the law, but he's greeted with little more than jeers. And since the sheriff is out of town, only Deputy Mapes (Dick Rich) can throw folks in jail — instead, the tobacco-spitting lout illegally deputizes half of the town. The posse is then led into the hills by retired Confederate officer Tetley (Frank Conroy), where they discover three men who match the description of the rustlers. But only a few members of the posse, Gil included, are willing to insist the suspects be brought back to town for a trial. Ox-Bow co-star Harry Morgan once recalled how the film was received upon initial release — an early screening concluded with a mixture of silence and polite applause, but Orson Welles got a word with Morgan before leaving the theater. "They don't know what they just saw," he insisted. The Ox-Bow Incident's power is subtle, and somewhat deceptive. It clocks in at a brief 75 minutes, was shot very quickly on soundstages and at Fox's Malibu ranch (extensive location work wasn't line-itemed), and doesn't feature a retinue of the day's major stars, with the exception of Henry Fonda. Fonda himself, while no stranger to gritty films (such as 1940's The Grapes of Wrath), still was best known for lighter movies that utilized his midwestern charm. Ox-Bow, in fact, is everything that westerns were not during the classic era, as best typified by the films of John Ford. In the Fordian universe, the lone hero takes a courageous stand against a corrupting influence in order to defend such social institutions as community, family, government, and religion. In Ox-Bow, the community itself is the enemy, free to be corrupted from within, and uninfluenced by family, government, and religion (all of which are represented by various characters before the script trods on their impotence). What's worse, the lone hero himself is powerless against the mob, despite his rough edges and plain-spoken temperament. Contemporary films may prize themselves on "twist" endings, but Ox-Bow didn't end on a twist in 1943 as much as sucker-punch, robbing moviegoers of both their matinee heroes and their faith in American civil justice, and if it is still met with silence during the final credits, we can only hope it's a silence that's matched by a few moments of quiet reflection. Fox's DVD release of The Ox-Bow Incident, part of the "Fox Studio Classics" imprint, features a solid transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a restored source-print that looks nearly flawless, while audio is clean and clear in monaural DD 2.0. Features include an informative commentary by film historian Dick Eulain and William Wellman Jr., the A&E "Biography" episode on Henry Fonda, and a restoration comparison. Keep-case.
—JJB



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